South Africa


Freedom and xenophobia do not belong together – one must be defended and the other banished

Freedom and xenophobia do not belong together – one must be defended and the other banished
We may not be blood brothers or sisters. But there is a need for interdependence if we are ever to build a common society, where we all enjoy freedom together, says the writer. (Photo: Gallo Images / The Times / Alon Skuy)

The revocation of the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit, which would have expelled thousands, has now been postponed until June 2023. Clearly Home Affairs was unprepared for the October court challenge and had to step back to avoid embarrassment. But revocation remains on the agenda, an attack not only against Zimbabweans, but the foundations of our Constitution and foundational humanistic notions of belonging together.

It is commonplace to speak of South Africa undergoing a crisis and the focus is generally on the economy, lack of growth, inequality, high debt, high unemployment, gender-based and other violence and failure of the state to meet basic needs and services.

The focus of this article is on a more basic level, on the question of freedom, the crisis of freedom in South Africa today. There is a range of troubling features of South African society pointing towards an undermining of, and lack of respect for, the freedom that was won in 1994.

In many respects the boundaries of that freedom may already be contracting or under attack from the state in various ways, including acts of violence or failure to prevent vigilante violence. Much of this unofficial violence – in association with some political organisations, including sections of the ANC – may mutate into a form of fascism.

In speaking of the collapse of what freedom we should enjoy, one can refer to the Auditor-General’s reports on the use of funds in relation to the floods in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape last year. One of the most shocking features is that only 6% of the allocated resources have been used.

People have been rendered homeless, lost all their belongings and what wealth they previously had. They have lost schools, healthcare clinics and other basic facilities. But 94% of the money allocated by a country that is in a financial crisis was not used. There is no sense of obligation to one another and the plight of others.

What this indicates is the breakdown of relationality, of a sense that we all belong to and with one another. We may not be blood brothers or sisters. But there is a need for interdependence if we are ever to build a common society, where we all enjoy freedom together. (“Common society” was a notion used by Chief Albert Luthuli in writing to the apartheid regime just before the Sharpeville Massacre, a concept connoting South Africans belonging together).

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Now this example from the Auditor-General’s report illustrates the breakdown of a concept (that may never have been widely realised) of caring about and for one another, of connection between us, of a sense that what happens to my brother or sister is also my concern. This is something that is obviously captured in the proverb from which the notion of ubuntu is derived, that I am a person because of other people, feminist notions of “connectedness”, “caring” and “solidarity”, the latter notion found in a range of social, political and religious movements.

In that way of thinking every one of us sees our fates tied up with those who experienced the flooding. We are not separated from them and their pain. Their losses are ours and we work together to find a remedy.

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That notion of our present and future being linked to other human beings has been increasingly undermined in the process of self-destruction of the ANC (along with the values and social commitments that had previously attracted people to the organisation), and the years of erosion of our freedoms by the ANC, the years of stealing of the wealth of the country, the ruining of people’s lives by diverting funds from the poorest of the poor, which continues in every day of “renewal”.

It may well be that the notion of our present and future being linked to that of other people in this country has been undermined to the extent where we may well believe it doesn’t exist anymore. That is because there is no longer a sense of commonality, of belonging with one another. People have lived in a post-apartheid society where for some years the values of the Freedom Charter and indeed the Constitution have both been displaced.

This has been regularly witnessed, whether in driving homeless people off makeshift shelters, killing without consequences as in Marikana and that of Abahlali baseMjondolo shack dwellers, or dispersing grant seekers, sometimes disabled, with water cannon. When this becomes the norm at an official level, it is easy for such indifference to the poor to be diffused throughout society.

At this moment, many people in the country – more people, according to my impression (not after conducting a survey) than previously – are preoccupied with foreign migrants’ presence in the country. And more than previously I have heard, and heard about, other people speaking in derogatory terms of foreign migrants in the country, and even the use of the word cockroaches to refer to foreign migrants from Africa. One of these meetings was initiated by a well-established body of organisations and SANDF high officials were present.

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Some may not know that the Rwandan genocide of 1994 had as one of its components a discourse that demeaned the people who were killed and referred to them as “cockroaches”. Any language that names people as subhuman, that compares a human being with a cockroach, is assaulting the dignity of that human being. It is also easier with this discourse being aired for potential violence to be conducted against such a segment of the population.

Judith Butler has linked the notion of non-violence to the need for equality between human beings, just as the pervasive violence that we find in our society is linked to inequality where the targets are generally the poorest of the poor and those marginalised in various ways whose lives are considered less “grievable”. The loss of such lives simply does not matter to many people.

Where inequality is tied with dehumanising language and dehumanising naming of the Other as in words like cockroaches, it is reification, making them into a thing as opposed to a thinking and feeling human being.

Reification is to remove the human qualities from the people concerned and without the qualities that human beings have, to feel, to think and other senses. It brings to mind Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

“Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” (Act 3, Scene 1).”

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All of those qualities are now effectively being removed in the discourse deployed against foreign migrants who are banished from any notion of commonality with the rest of the society in which they live. The xenophobia that we have in South Africa is not simply an attack on some human beings who are marginalised. It is also an attack on freedom.

This is because an attack on any human being is an attack on every human being, because freedom to be free has to be freedom for all. Freedom is a universal and indivisible concept. It is not a case of freedom for one and not for everyone else. That can’t be freedom because freedom is a concept, a way of being that is acted out in relationships with other human beings.

Defend freedom that is under attack

Our freedom is under attack, mainly by those charged with its defence. It is not only the state and the ANC in some areas, but other organisations who operate as vigilantes with political or other agendas with violent methods and often goals that undermine constitutionalism and freedom. Sometimes authorities stand by and allow uncontrolled violence to reign.

There is a range of sectors that previously advanced and defended democracy whose power needs to be felt at this time. The religious sector was a vital force in the 1980s. The South African Council of Churches is doing work on xenophobia. It is essential that it and other faith-based organisations and institutions make this an even more substantial part of their work, and consequently, a significant part of this struggle to recover the freedom that may be lost.

There are of course many others among the workers, professionals, business big and small, who all know that migrants are being scapegoated and if successful, that this will turn out badly.

We need to reverse and banish xenophobic practices as part of a regaining of our freedom that cannot be curtailed but needs to be enhanced and enriched by the input of all “who live in South Africa”, citizens and other inhabitants. DM

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and under house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, violence, gender and sexualities. His books include Recovering Democracy in South Africa, The ANC Underground and Inside Apartheid’s Prison, all published by Jacana Media. His Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hugh Corder says:

    As ever, Raymond Suttner uses impeccable logic infused with deep understanding of the dignity and equality essential to the concept of humanity, to point to the underlying causes of social movements. Much of this may stem from his own suffering, inflicted by the brutality of the apartheid regime. Thank you, Professor Suttner, for sticking to our constitutional values and speaking so clearly. For my part, in any discussion of xenophobia, I wonder at our failure to remember who drew the colonial boundaries which separate us on this continent and what motivated the imperialists in doing so.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Is lack of comments so far an indication of silently condoning xenophobia? Where were the so-called vigilantes when the state was robbed blind? But demonstrating against corruption takes courage, xenophobia is a tool of cowards.

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